On the VERGE

Back from the brink of biodiversity bust?

Person on edge of cliff
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This article is adapted from the newsletter VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.

I’m sure you’ve seen the news by now. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are taking to the streets, celebrating the business leaders, policy makers and grassroots actions that brought a million species back from the brink of extinction, including the looming potential destiny of our own.

After all, it’s May 9, 2024. Five years to the week that humanity seized the wake-up call that the fate of our species, not to mention of our businesses and institutions, are inextricably interconnected with the fate of all species.

The primary catalyst was the United Nations report released in May 2019, declaring that 1 million plants and animals — about one-sixth of all known species on Earth — were on the verge of extinction. Hailed at that time as one of the most comprehensive assessments ever undertaken of the planet's health, the report went an important step further than preceding scientific studies. It underscored the ways in which this unprecedented decline in biodiversity would directly "erode the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide," according to Sir Robert Watson, the panel’s chairman.

This is when the business community woke up — not just to the economic risks but the tremendous opportunities in moving away from extractive and degenerative practices towards restorative and regenerative ones.

Companies finally started accounting accurately and judiciously for the value of natural capital and ecosystem services — the world’s stocks of natural assets upon which people and businesses depend. As the 12th edition of the State of Green Business report, produced in partnership with Trucost, reported in 2019, the value of natural capital to society globally was about $72 trillion per year, based on data from the U.N. Environment Program. The report issued an important warning:

"If companies had to internalize all of the natural capital costs associated with their business... their profit would be significantly at risk. The natural capital cost generated by the largest 1,200 companies in the world is more than twice their net income" — $4.1 trillion, back in 2019, to be precise.

Across sectors, an average of 78 percent of companies’ environmental impacts are embedded in their supply chains, all of which were threatened by the impending collapse of vital ecosystems. Companies mobilized, seizing the opportunity to understand their natural capital costs and exposure to environmental and regulatory policy risks. Those risks are now mitigated by a tremendous increase in action: By the end of 2024, 100 percent of S&P 500 companies will be on track to achieve science-based emissions reductions and clean-energy goals. To accomplish this, they are shifting procurement policies, supply chains and operations to align with restoring, rather than depleting, natural capital.

This happened rather quickly: 2019 was the year that isolated efforts by companies to incorporate the value of nature into business strategy started scaling, bringing threatened natural systems back from the brink.

For example, companies today are reimagining and redesigning their facilities — not merely to eliminate negative environmental impacts, but also to provide ecosystem services in and of themselves. The Factory as a Forest model, pioneered by the flooring company Interface in 2016, has taken root across industries and sectors. Industrial facilities, corporate and college campuses, even residential apartment buildings increasingly are being designed and constructed so that the buildings fulfill the ecosystem service benefits that used to exist in their place.

Interface’s Climate Take Back mission — at the time, groundbreaking in its audacity and scope — is becoming the baseline. Among its once-revolutionary-goals that today represent the norm: zero waste, greenhouse gas emissions and net water use; 100 percent renewable energy; a closed technical loop, via product takeback and 100 percent recycled or biobased materials; and other goals related to clean transportation, stakeholder well-being and business models that fundamentally redesign commerce.

The restoration economy is burgeoning, too. Young people around the world are being trained and empowered with tools such as the Ecosystem Services Identification & Inventory Tool, pioneered through a partnership between Dow Chemical and the Nature Conservancy, enabling decision makers to rapidly assess the value of nature to a business or community. Investments in green infrastructure are skyrocketing; partnerships with indigenous peoples are spreading to incorporate their traditional ecological knowledge into conservation policies; and programs such as American Forests’ Tree Equity Initiative are creating career pathways for people from underserved communities to re-forest our cities.

Okay, I’m back from my fantasy to today’s grim reality. The preceding story is the one I want to be able to tell — that this week’s news didn’t become the latest in a series of alarm bells falling on deaf ears, but rather a catalyst for bold action from companies and communities to ensure that we, along with all these extraordinary creatures, don't disappear.